Chickens – Part 1: The Gateway Animal

There are a myriad of animals that comprise the concept of animal-based homesteading: pigs, goats, cattle (beef and dairy), sheep, and for a select few individuals, even more exotic creatures, such as alpacas, buffalo, and emu.

However – none of those animals quite engage newcomers to this lifestyle like the noble chicken. These precious pullets are found within the idyllic fantasies of every would-be homesteader, scratching through the grass for bugs, seeds, and whatever leavings your larger animals leave behind. You input grain, and you receive bright, orange yolked eggs every morning. And if the eggs stop coming? Baby, you got a stew going.

It’s absolutely no surprise that this is the thought process, because frankly, my above scenario is not far from the truth. Chickens are a great introduction to the concept of livestock. Low maintenance, low entry cost, incredible adaptability, and prodigious reproduction make them an excellent starting point for anybody trying to be even a midge more self-sufficient.

But, if you’re anything like me, you want to do as much research as possible on any given thing before you make a purchase (more so when the thing in question lives, eats, and poops) – so I’m putting together a series of posts dedicated to tackling each piece of chicken ownership from beginning to end.

Two of my first chickens when they were first at the point of lay – a Barred Rock (left) and a Rhode Island White (right)

What can chickens do for me?

Chickens, as with most livestock, have dozens upon dozens of breeds to choose from, and none of these breeds happened by accident. Before you can dive into what kind of chicken you want to buy, you need to figure out why you want them.

Eggs
Probably the most common response to this question – eggs provide a source of almost effortless protein that can be used to enliven any meal (or as a meal all their own). High egg production breeds of chickens can produce anywhere from 250 – 300 eggs per year (some claim higher, but those numbers are typically seen in hen batteries).

Meat
Chicken is an incredibly popular form of protein, eaten in nearly every corner in the world due to the animal’s low space requirements, prolific feed conversion ratios, and their rapid processing turnaround time (pending the breed). An excellent way to stock your freezer with quality protein, or to jump start a small farm business.

Pest Control
Chickens can be a boon to a bug infested backyard – all the scratching they do is designed to find the various creepy crawlies you want gone. Plus, they pay you for the privilege with delicious eggs (or meat)!

Compost
Chicken poop is among the highest nitrogen content composts you could hope for. People sell this stuff by the 50 lb bag – you could make your own at home!

Decoration
Some people just like to see some pretty birds acting like birds. There are plenty of ornamental breeds to choose from – and they do all of the normal chicken activities. Turn your yard into graceful ballet of the poultry persuasion (or a rooster ruckus, depending on whether you opt in for really beautiful roosters that almost every breed offers).

Alright, I’m convinced – time for some chickens

Okay – I’ve made a convincing argument. You were pretty sure before, but now you’re sold. Where do you start?

Well, as I mentioned above, chickens can do a lot. But, as with most things, there are trade offs with specialization. For example – the best laying birds are not going to make great meat birds. And in exchange, don’t expect a ton of eggs from your Cornish Cross. Additionally, most of your “ornamental” breeds aren’t particularly great for eggs or meat.

You can straddle the line, and find some dual purpose birds (think Barred Rock or Rhode Island Red) but the term “dual purpose” is kind of a misnomer – these are primarily laying birds (Rhode Island Reds being some of the best out there, actually) that just happen to be large enough that you could process them and end up with more than a little meat on the bones. They do not boast the rapid growth necessary to make them a “viable” alternative to the dedicated meat birds in terms of cost and feed efficiency.

Here are some example breeds for Layers, Meat birds, and Ornamental birds:

Laying Hens
Australorps
Barred Rocks
Delawares
Dominiques (referred to as domineckers for those of us with class)
Rhode Island Reds
Leghorns (pronounced leg-ern in more sophisticated circles)
Ameraucanas

Meat Birds
Cornish Cross
Cornish Game Hens
Big Red Broilers (these go by many names depending on the hatchery)

Ornamental
Polish
Silkies
Frizzles
Phoenix
Sumatras

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. I highly recommend checking out Murray McMurray (my preferred online hatchery, more on those later) for information on other breeds.

Part 2 of this series (coming soon) will cover where, when, and how to buy these birds both as baby chicks and point of lay hens.

Thank you all for reading! Feel free to comment with any questions on the above information.

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